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The Good, the Bad and the Daddy: Fathers in Fiction

Posted on 20th May 2021 by Mark Skinner

As we prepare to celebrate Father's Day, the Waterstones Blog takes a look at a broad array of literary dads. From the imaginations of Jane Austen, Stephen King and more, this is our pick of great fathers in fiction.  

‘It was times like these when I thought my father… was the bravest man who ever lived.’- Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Whilst literature has thrown up a number of ideal fathers over the centuries, it is fair to say that there have also been examples of less than desirable male parenting within the pages of many novels. For every Atticus Finch there is a Jack Torrance, but then that variety is what makes literary depictions of fatherhood so interesting and absorbing.

One would be hard pushed to find a nobler dad than Harper Lee’s morally upstanding lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. Agreeing to defend Tom Robinson on a trumped-up rape charge despite the virulent racism in his Deep South town, Atticus is a model of integrity and virtue and a perfect role model for his narrator daughter Scout and her older brother Jem. 

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A true American classic and a novel whose crusading spirit and memorable characters have passed into literary folklore, To Kill a Mockingbird views the brutality of racism in the Deep South through the eyes of the big-hearted child narrator, Scout.
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But whilst Atticus Finch may be the picture of moral decency, the unnamed father in Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian classic The Road may just be the most devoted dad in literature. Journeying across a post-apocalyptic wilderness with his young son, he is forced to kill, steal and push himself to the physical limit (he is also dying, by the way) in order to protect the only family he has left. 

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A profoundly moving narrative of a father and son traversing a ravaged landscape, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece is an intimate examination of family and devotion in the bleakest of environments and circumstances.
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Children's literature can serve up some of the most idealised portraits of fatherhood - not least the little-seen but much mythologised James Potter from J.K. Rowling's bestselling Harry Potter series, although George Weasley from the same world runs him pretty close. And whilst most picture books focus on loveable, if sometimes hapless, fathers, Anthony Browne bucks the trend with the truly remarkable Gorilla. In this classic story, a neglected little girl craves attention from her father only to be constantly rebuffed. Yet rest assured that, after a magical escapade with a charismatic gorilla, there is a happy ending after all.       

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Hogwarts, Muggles, Diagon Alley, Quidditch; the magical journey that launched a billion young readers feels just as fresh, fun and meticulously rendered as it did over twenty years ago, as a wide-eyed young wizard is sucked into an old-fashioned battle between good and evil.
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Once more elevating the picture book form into an emotionally affecting work of art, Browne’s heart-wrenching tale of a lonely girl, her neglectful dad and a magical night with the titular ape is a stone-cold children’s classic.
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Of course, many fathers in fiction are a nuanced mixture of good and bad. Mr Bennet from Jane Austen’s beloved Regency masterpiece Pride and Prejudice is loveable and indulgent towards his daughters but not the man to make a bold decision or plan for the future. Similarly, Winston Jacob in Andrea Levy’s panoramic debut Every Light in the House Burnin’ is a larger-than-life patriarch who can inspire intense love and intense frustration in equal measure. The nameless father in Max Porter’s extraordinary Grief is the Thing With Feathers, meanwhile, is desperately adrift in a sea of grief following the death of his wife and mother to their two children.

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Impeccably crafted in flawless prose, the delightfully witty courtship of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy is brimming with Austen's characteristic playfulness and comic irony.
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A panoramic journey through twenty years of post-war black British history, Levy’s witty and moving novel of family and society is a tour de force of literary style and empathy.
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Startlingly original and emotive, Max Porter’s innovative debut novel playfully blends poetry and prose whilst examining grief, fatherhood and the restorative powers of literature.
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Khaled Hosseini's early twenty-first century masterpiece The Kite Runner presents two very different depictions of the father-son relationship. Baba's neglectful treatment of his son, Amir is contrasted with the more empathetic bond that his best friend Hassan enjoys with his son, Sohrab, later in the novel. The dynamics of the plot hinge on these two varying approaches to fatherhood.

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An utterly absorbing and emotionally devastating account of betrayal and redemption amidst the turbulence of Afghanistan, Hosseini’s intensely powerful novel revolves around Amir and his attempts to right a grievous wrong from his past.
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Colum McCann's acclaimed Apeirogon, meanwhile, is a fictionalised account of the relationship between two extraordinary real-life fathers - one Palestinian, one Israeli - and their coming together after the tragic deaths of both their daughters. Their story, and McCann's masterful telling of it, is proof that fatherhood really does transcend cultural and political boundaries.

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Exploring the relationship between two bereaved men amidst the physical and emotional carnage of the West Bank, Apeirogon is a masterpiece of characterisation and subtle political commentary.
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But what of the feckless fathers, the poor patriarchs, the truly bad dads? Well, this blog will content itself with two examples. The obnoxious Mr Alderheim from Jonas Jonasson's Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd. has left a trail of destruction and heartache for his children - but he is about to get his just desserts. And, whilst Jack Torrance can maybe not be held entirely responsible for his demonic actions whilst in charge of the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, his young son Danny will definitely not look back on the period as a time of great family bonding.

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From the author of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared comes a hilarious story of retribution inflicted upon one truly obnoxious Mr Alderheim, whose wronged young ex-wife and maltreated son decide to hire a specialist to arrange their payback.
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One of King’s most famous novels is also one of his most chilling; the spine-tingling story of a hotel caretaker driven to monstrous insanity by supernatural forces.
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